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Hip-hop homophobia: A filmmaker takes on anti-Gay messages in rap music
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Hip-hop homophobia: A filmmaker takes on anti-Gay messages in rap music

by David Zimmerman- Special to the SGN

Byron Hurt is lifting weights in a New York City health club. Like most people around him, he's listening to music on his iPod. It's hip-hop - 'Almost always is,' says Hurt. The rapper: Nas. The album: Hip Hop is Dead. The lyric: 'If I sound too smart, will ya'll run away.'

Hurt finishes at the gym, and boards a plane for the seven-hour flight across the continent to Seattle. He's still thinking about that Nas lyric.

Hours after landing, Hurt steps behind a lectern where 100 students and faculty are gathered at Pierce College in Puyallup. They're here to watch Hurt's film Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, the award-winning documentary confronting mainstream rap music as violent, homophobic, and misogynistic.

"I love hip-hop," Hurt says with confidence. "That's why I made this documentary." Some of the students look uncomfortable, but no one runs away.

For most of his adult life Hurt has examined the effect violence and media have on young men and women. From old western shoot-em'-up movies to the hyper-violent and over-sexed music videos of today, Hurt has been a pop culture surgeon of sorts, cutting back layers of stereotype to expose the vital organs of the multi-billion dollar entertainment industry. An African American male who uses words like "homoerotic" to describe the masculine rap industry, Hurt is commended for his work in the field of media literacy. The fact that he speaks straight at young heterosexual men about Gay stereotypes and violence in pop-culture and hip-hop music should be championed.

In 2007, Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, then aired on the Emmy award-winning PBS series Independent Lens. "Since then, I've pretty much been on a plane flying around the world to show it and talk with people about it," says Hurt.

A telling scene in the film goes like this: Hurt interviews Busta Rhymes, a hip-hop star from Brooklyn, NY. Byron asks if Gay people can make it in the rap industry. Busta Rhymes is so shocked by the question he can't even answer. The hardcore, tough-guy image Busta portrays is wiped clean. He gives a contorted smile, and mumbles as he leaves the room. Busta Rhymes runs away.

When I interviewed Hurt for this story, he told me the Busta Rhymes situation was "awkward." "I know that having a conversation about homophobia can shut an interview down."

It's just what his films are about: pushing straight guys out of their comfort zone.

"I think it's a good thing - it's about time," says Renado Tozer, a 23-year-old Seattle area resident. Tozer is a professional dancer for the Splinter Dance Company. He is African American. He is Gay. Rap music is not Tozer's favorite, though he's been listening to it since he was in his early teens.

"Ice T was the first I remember. He called other guys 'bitches,'" says Tozer. "It's unfortunate that has to be sung about. Someone so talented has to be like that."

Tozer was born in the Seattle area but moved to rural Iowa as a boy. At his high school, he was the only black person (Tozer also has Cuban, French, and Native American ancestry). While diversity at school was a barren desert, popular culture's images and stereotypes flooded young minds with images of violent black men treating women like toys and destroying anything that seemed weak. Fighting to stay afloat was soft-spoken Renado. "The music influenced these kids," he says. "They had an image of what life was like in the city."

His peers listened to DMX, Tupac Shakur and Jay Z's album The Blueprint. On the song titled "Heart of the City," Jay Z sings, "More money, more problems, gotta move carefully. Cause faggots hate when you gettin' money like athletes." The Blueprint sold three million records. Renado kept quiet about his sexuality. His classmates turned up the music. "Kids these days watch TV and listen to music, and the views of African American men are fed to these kids. It starts so young. It's sad."

Byron Hurt begins and ends his documentary with these words: "I love hip-hop music." Like other art forms, the genre has some of the most poetic and creative talent in music. Socially conscious rappers like Immortal Technique use third-world poverty as wordplay. Political rappers like Mos Def weave current events with the language of the inner city that would make Shakespeare jealous. Good hip-hop opens minds, but mainstream rap music, the kind you hear on your radio or see on BET, has a more important endeavor. "There is just way too much money to be made," says Hurt. "Gay people who love hip-hop have to look past it. It's such a complicated art form."

For many in the Gay community, the hip-hop world has too much negative baggage to overcome. Dion Fountain is a 21-year-old African American who serves as a board member for Seattle PFLAG. He tuned hip-hop out long ago.

"There is only one image," he says. "How many women can I sleep with? How long can I go to jail and come out with the most street cred?"

Dion doesn't think it's possible to listen to rap music (or watch commercial TV, for that matter) and avoid falling for the age-old stereotypes of women as objects, and Gay people as weak or perverted. "It's like a condition. You hear the same things over and over again, and sooner or later you believe them."

The documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond beats and Rhymes ends, and the lights come on at the Pierce College auditorium. Students take turns asking questions. Two teenagers from Tacoma stand up to tell Hurt they've got socially conscious rap music ready for the masses. Another student stands up. "Oh yeah?" he says, "Let's hear it."

The two emcees launch into a fast-paced, clever assessment about the pressure on young women to have sex, the reality of HIV, and the taboos surrounding the disease. The crowd seems pleased. "If I sound too smart, will ya'll run away."

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